Putin chastises Russian tycoon over massive Arctic oil spill

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday chastised the billionaire owner of a nickel giant for negligence resulting in a massive fuel oil spill that has inflicted huge damage on a fragile Arctic region.

An estimated 20,000 tons of diesel oil spilled into the Ambarnaya River last Friday from a broken tank at a power plant in Norilsk, 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) northeast of Moscow. Booms were laid across the river to prevent the fuel oil from getting into a lake downstream that feeds another river leading to the environmentally delicate Arctic Ocean.

Putin has declared a state of emergency in the region to help minimize the consequences of the spill. The power plant is operated by a division of Norilsk Nickel, whose giant plants in the area have made Norilsk one of the most heavily polluted places on the planet.

Prosecutors said Friday that the accident was apparently triggered by melting permafrost that caused the concrete foundation under the tank to crack.

During Friday’s video call with officials and environmental experts, Putin lashed out at Norilsk Nickel owner Vladimir Potanin, saying it was his company’s failure to check the fuel tanks’ condition.

Speaking from the site of the spill, Potanin said that his company will pay for the cleanup efforts that he estimated at 10 billion rubles ($146 million) and will also stand ready to pay fines for damage to the environment.

With a thin smile, Putin pointed out that replacing the aging fuel tank would have cost a tiny fraction of that.

“If you replaced them in time, there wouldn’t have been the damage to the environment and your company wouldn’t have to carry such costs,” Putin told Potanin, who is Russia’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $25.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. “You should look at it closely inside the company.”